By Tom Paulu
Wearing a tux and jaunty black hat and sucking on a cigar, Curt Harris looked every bit the movie star as he waved to folks lined up outside the Chehalis Theater. For at least one day Harris and his co-stars in “The Immigrant Garden” were stars indeed. They arrived in classic cars and strode over a red carpet into the theater where the marquee read “world premier.” Market Street, the main drag in Chehalis, had a touch of Hollywood glitz Saturday for the first screenings of “The Immigrant Garden.” Southwest Washington residents who have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and countless hours making the movie, hope it will eventually appear on TV, if not movie theaters.
“Immigrant Garden” grew from a play that Caroline Wood of Longveiw wrote a decade ago. Several years ago, she took a class in screenwriting from C. Tad Devlin of Chehalis, who has done extensive Hollywood film production work. Devlin said the class encouraged Wood to expand on the script, and the seeds of a movie were planted. The cast is largely amateurs who haven’t appeared in films before. And the crew members learned on the job from Devlin. ‘We made our own lights. We made our own dollies. We made our own cranes,” he said.
The story is set in Oakville, a small town in western Lewis County. Many of the scenes were filmed at the Borst Home in Centralia, although the cast came to the Rutherlen Mansion in Longveiw in the fall of 1999 for a ballroom dance scene. The story, set in 1910, revolves around a young woman,Cecily Barnes, who lives with her father, Arthur. Cecily’s mother died when the girl was 3, and Arthur often visits her grave to talk to her. Cecily discovers some seed packets from England bearing the inspirational words of Mrs. Beauchamp. The two begin a correspondence, the 80-year-old Mrs. Beauchamp provides the motherly advice that Cecily longs for. Cecily is headstrong, which gets her into trouble in school and with her father, who’s trying to hook her up with one of his students. Cecily would much rather march for women’s suffrage, and longs to travel to England to meet Mrs. Beauchamp. She writes that she dislikes having to squeeze herself into a corset for her 18th birthday party. “It is only when a woman is forced into the corset of society that a woman loses her strength,” her older pen pal responds. The girl also befriends her piano teacher who’s ostracized by the community because she’s a never-wed mother.
Wood’s original play had just two women; she concocted all the other extra characters for the movie. She researched the area’s history first. Wood said the black shopkeeper she invented would have been realistic for 1910 Washington – In the movie, Cecily finds she can’t work in his store because of his race. “The Immigrant Garden” moves slowly, apt for an era when people seldom traveled far from home and horseless carriages were just arriving on the scene. The camera lingers on misty fields and barns. It’s very much a character development picture – although one of the main characters, Mrs. Beauchamp only appears at the end.
Angela Johnson, 19, of Onalaska, said she felt overwhelmed at the premier. She said she took her character’s development to heart during filming. “I grew from it.” Johnson, a drama student at Centralia College, plans to get an agent and head to the Seattle or Portland areas to further her career. She has high hopes for the film because, “It’s just one of those classics.” Harris who plays Cecily’s father, took six weeks off work for the filming. Like other actors he didn’t see the film until Saturday. “It had a lot more depth to it” than he expected, he said. Former Longveiw actor Peter Lewis plays the bumbling student Rigor, who Cecily likes more than the snob her father wants her to favor. The finished product was “a lot better than I expected,” Lewis said. Phillip Kennedy, Micheal Duncan and Tabitha Oullette are other actors in the cast.
After the showing, Devlin said that he and crew members had been up the previous few nights working on the sound. He wasn’t satisfied with it, and planned to add new background music. Even though the actors agreed to be paid only if the film turns a profit, making “The Immigrant Garden” still cost $729,000, Devlin said. “About a half million came from my pocket.” It would have cost another half million if the film had been shot on film instead of digital videotape. His next step is to enter “The Immigrant Garden” in film festivals and try to market it. Devlin said the premier is proof that an independent producer can make a movie in an industry dominated by a few major studios. “This is almost as revolutionary as the printing press,” he said.